By F.Anthony D’Alessandro
I owe him! His name was Mark Felt. He was my twelfth grade social studies teacher. I’d transferred into his school at the start of my senior year and he fashioned my career. Gertrude Stein correctly observed a century ago, ‘Silent gratitude is not much use to anyone.’ Veritas!
How do I thank him? Initially, I felt the need to follow my inspirational teacher’s lead and to share his magnificent message. One vehicle was spreading a part of his gospel of reaching out to students and total dedication to educating the entire child. Fortunately, much of that appeared in an essay Mazel Tov Maestro published in an anthology entitled To Honor a Teacher. Much of today’s essay is based upon that book.
This story starts in my last year of high school. A certified academic and athletic drifter I’d dreamt of a baseball career after Little League. Despite my ‘Most Valuable Player Award’ I never played another organized baseball game after tenth grade. I fancied myself a ranked tennis player by senior year of high school. Unfortunately, I only competed in one tennis tournament after graduation.
I attended half a dozen secondary schools. My travels through numerous secondary school classrooms taught me to expend just enough scholastic energy to get passing grades. Devoid of college ambitions, one day while holding court in the student parking lot with my pals around my shiny Buick convertible, I spotted a sprinting middle aged man. Slightly breathless from his run Marc Felt, my social studies teacher, jogged toward my car. Stylish young women, greasy headed toughs, and assorted hangers-on scattered like cronies from a defeated politician.
The teacher said, ‘Anthony, I have read your essays and I expect to hear your opinions in class tomorrow.’ The next day Marc asked, ‘Anthony, your opinion on the Civil Rights Act?’ I sat mouth agape. He added, ‘From now on, this entire class will react and discuss current news. Understood?’
Mr. Felt, a classroom cavalier, boldly attacked my academic apathy. He challenged me to think. Issues took on life in his classroom. He fired up the curiosity trapped within my soul. His words reminded me of William Butler Yates who suggested that education was not filling a pail, but rather like lighting a fire.
For years, I tried to camouflage academic knowledge under a stylish blanket of black leather jackets, Elvis-style sideburns, and angry cars. None of that clutter and pretense blurred his vision of me. He blew my cover. Exposure of my academic potential terrified me. I dared to ask him not to return papers in grade order since A’s were embarrassing. He grinned and continued his dogged pattern of the highest grade to the lowest grade.
He forced his students to stand face-to-face with the mirror of truth. He demanded that we delve into current events. He asked me, ‘Anthony, any opinion on Vietnam?’ Foreshadowing! In a few years, many members of that class would visit Vietnam. Some never returned home. Somehow, lifeless maps hanging from peeling classroom walls appeared infused with life after Mr. Felt prodded them with his pointer. One day he nodded and signaled me to his side. He whispered, ‘Think about you becoming a teacher.’
Annually, the high school hosted a student-teacher day. Usually, each teacher selected his best student, asked him to write lesson plans, and to substitute teach that day. He picked me. My palms began sweating. I balked, ‘Sir you have honor classes, why me?’
‘Okay Anthony, if you think they’re better than you, feel free to decline,’ he replied. He got to me by challenging my competitive spirit. He won. I won too since his gamble initiated my teaching career.
A week later, an invigorating spring day lured me to cut class. As I began driving my car slowly toward the schoolhouse gate, Mr. Felt stood in front of my car with raised arms like a cop. I stopped. He ignored assorted beach towels, a surfboard, and an entourage of passengers plopped in my car. The passengers disappeared quickly. Then, he asked, ‘Why haven’t you applied to college?’
I parked and started drumming my fingers. Mr. Felt said, ‘Anthony, I want to visit your parents.’
Sweat poured down my face. I thought, why bring them into this? I said, ‘Sir, my parents work.’ He said, ‘No problem, I’m sure they don’t work twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week.’ He paused and added, ‘I’ll call them tomorrow and schedule a home visit.’ The next evening my mother surprised me. Her eyes sparkled when she announced, ‘Il maestro is coming to Sunday dinner.’ I sat long-faced and speechless. Teachers were not supposed to do that, I brooded.
Worried, I was afraid that he might not understand my parents’ melodious, yet broken English. Was I ashamed of the two people that I loved most? Was I concerned of what Mr. Felt would think after meeting my parents? In retrospect, I now recall some comments former governor Mario Cuomo made last century. He spoke of ethnic self-hate prevalent in Italian Americans of my generation. Was I experiencing that?
Marc Felt visited our home. He was escorted to the seat of honor. With an ear-to-ear smile, he toasted in Italian, ‘Salute!’ Marc complimented the cooking and gestured toward the heavens and said, ‘Deliozo.’
After dinner, he entered the den with my father. My dad handed him a braided and stinking cigar. Laughter echoed; They spoke of Italy, family, and me. Pretentiousness was alien to them. Their words traveled through time and ethnicity that afternoon. Marc sprinkled Italian words and relished exotic Sicilian foods.
Pop toasted, ‘Mazel tov Maestro!’ Language became a barrier in my mind only. Their animated actions and spontaneous smiles indicated their shared bond of friendship. Before he left our home, Marc and my parents hugged and simultaneously said, ‘Grazie.’ My dad offered him a bottle of his homemade Chianti wine. Dad was pleased that Mr. Felt agreed to visit a university with me and enroll me. Sicily taught her children to be wary of strangers. Despite that, my parents instantly trusted this teacher who possessed an abundance of simpatico and appreciated him again for motivating me to register at the university.
In terms of gratitude, since my senior year in high school, I have participated in countless school openings as a student, teacher, college professor, and school board trustee. At the start of each school year, I remembered my mentor Marc Felt and expressed gratitude to the man who prompted my becoming a blackboard cavalier too.
After graduating from university, I decided to visit Mr. Felt and personally express my gratitude. I met a teacher outside his school and asked about him. When she bowed her head and shut her eyes I surmised the answer. She whispered that he’d passed; I trembled.
Suddenly, the cliché, ‘A teacher affects eternity’ came to mind. That mentor and role model shaped the man and educator that I became. He lives in the articles, poetry, short stories, and books that I published. He lives in the thousands of inquisitive and excited faces that I cultivated in the classroom, the stream of students that I encouraged to enter teaching and other careers. He lives in the school journalists that I advised for a score of years, and in the thousand student teachers that I supervised at universities. On behalf of me and all of my students, I will forever thank Marc Felt.